Cue the friendly smiles at Sochi Olympics, where volunteers charm visitors to Russia

February 20

American Tamara Smith wears her volunteer uniform in the mountains near Krasnaya Polyana in February. (Courtesy of Tamara Smith)

Tamara Smith had longed to get to the Olympics since she was a 4-year-old growing up in Canton, Conn. She finally made it — as one of the 25,000 volunteers helping teams, officials and spectators navigate the Winter Games.

Maybe she’s not the typical volunteer — most are Russians and their average age is 23. Smith is a 41-year-old American who lives in Moscow, where she is head of the foreign languages department at a private school. But she must be one of the most enthusiastic. When she describes her experience, it’s as if she’s speaking in capital letters. “I am LOVING volunteering here,” she said.

Volunteers are everywhere, impossible to miss in their uniform of bright blue pants and lively colored jackets, done up in a collage of Russian folk art evoking flower-embellished metal trays, the red berries and golden leaves seen on wooden bowls and spoons, firebirds found on lacquered boxes, the hatched cobalt of traditional porcelain.

If their clothes honor the past, their demeanor speaks to the future. No vinegar faces here! The volunteers look as sweet as Russian honey (which, they’ll tell you, is the best in the world.)

Some sit high up on bright orange lifeguard-like chairs, calling out pleasantries through bullhorns as spectators leave events: “We are glad to see you.” “Please come again.” “We hope you had a good time.” Other engaging young Russians stand at bus stops in the early morning drizzle, checking that schedules are on time and the right people are getting on the right buses. Early on, they filled the airport at all hours of the day and night, giving arriving delegations hotel directions and hefting their here-for-a-month suitcases.

Late one recent morning, Lena Klimkina and Yulia Vasilyeva, both 18-year-old college students from Moscow, were standing near the medals plaza, making cheerful eye contact with visitors dwarfed by the asphalt stretching around them, intimidated by trying to get a fix on the whereabouts of the Bolshoi Ice Dome or Adler Arena.

“I like everything here,” said Klimkina, a blond and freckled student at the Moscow State University of Management. She doesn’t even mind getting aboard a train at 5 a.m. for the journey from her hotel in the distant settlement of Loo.

“We get a day off every week,” she said, “and I come with my new friends to the Olympic Park. We see events, we have a good time.”

Vasilyeva studies at the Russian University of Tourism in Moscow. “This is great experience for me,” she said.

More than 80 percent of the volunteers are under 30, with little or no memory of Soviet days, when it was far safer to scowl and turn away from foreigners than engage them.

The Organizing Committee, inspired by the popularity of volunteers at the London Games, set up recruiting offices around the country and received about 200,000 applications. Volunteers were screened with tests in language, problem-solving and psychological profiling. Smith said the testing was intensive and very similar to what a Western company might do.

Smith had hoped to work with the U.S. ice skaters, but she speaks five languages, including French, which was in higher demand than English. She was assigned to work as an assistant to the French National Olympic Committee, making sure hotel rooms were ready, driving the head of the mission from mountain cluster to coast, every day filled with adrenaline and inspiration, she said, doing her part to make the Olympics perfect.

On Valentine’s Day, she made time to buy balloons for some of the U.S. women. The next day, she appeared on NBC’s “Today Show” for a feature on Olympic volunteering.

She has picked athletes up at the airport, taken them to the rink, watched them practice. “They are extraordinary people,” she said. “Such talent and work ethic.”

And if she is star-struck, so are they. Part of the fascination of being here, Smith said, is watching some of the athletes float through the experience. “They still can’t quite believe they have made it here,” she said.

Smith got hooked on the Olympics watching on television as Irina Rodnina and Alexander Zaitsev from the Soviet Union skated to a gold medal at the 1976 Olympics in Innsbruck.

“I began skating,” she said. “When I was older, I had an injury and had to give it up. The passion I had for skating I threw into studying Russian.”

She met her husband, Chris, in the Russian department at Dartmouth. She became a language teacher, he a lawyer, and 10 years ago they moved to Moscow, where he took a job in a law office.

Her tour at the Olympics is something of a farewell to Russia. Smith’s husband was transferred to London, but she and their two daughters, Katerina, 13, and Natalia, 11, remained in Moscow to finish the school year. Soon, they leave for London.

The volunteers had to pay their own way to Sochi. The organizers provide their uniform, housing and three meals a day.

Smith had expected to stay with a few other volunteers in a new apartment close to the Olympic Park that would later be sold as a condo. Like other construction, it wasn’t finished. She ended up in a 1970s-vintage Soviet hotel in the nearby Adler section of Sochi. “It’s perfectly nice,” she said. “No frills.” The food is fine, she said, although she conceded that she is looking forward to cabbage-free days when she goes home.

Other volunteers described three-bedroom apartments filled with nine volunteers. As one put it, the cooks are not Iron Chefs. And some found the work assignments disappointing. Still, they refused to complain. They are, after all, at the Olympics.

“I have never experienced anything like it,” Smith said. “I feel as if I’m soaring for part of each day.”

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